Sergei Borhsenius, is the head of the IT department at Robots City B.V., a company that develops robots and organises robot shows.
In 2012, Sergei graduated from the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (HSE MIEM) with a degree in applied math. During his time at the university, he also worked as an engineering researcher in the Research Laboratory of Space Research, Technologies, Systems, and Processes. He was also a programmer at LLC Inec-As. In 2012, Borhsenius became the head of the analytics department at Studinformo Polit Pro before entering into his current position at Robots City B.V.
«We find creative work for robots»
About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Contrary to what sci-fi lovers might expect, robots are not trying to enslave the human race, but instead are engaged in much more peaceful things like performing onstage. This is the type of creative application that the company Robots City, whose IT department is currently headed by HSE MIEM graduate Sergei Borhsenius, has found for robots. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Sergei discusses why robots are able to read Shakespeare sonnets, but haven’t yet made it to Hamlet; what future programmers should prepare for; and how an introverted mathematician can become a manager.
Did you start working immediately after graduating from MIEM?
I got a freelance job making websites while I was still in my third year at the university, and during my fifth year, I interned at a company that produces banking software. Then something interesting happened – I randomly saw on the MIEM’s group VKontakte page an ad looking for someone to analyse data on social media. This was in the winter and I was far from being finished with my degree, but I decided to make some extra money. I quickly found some things that could be automated. I suggested some ideas on monitoring and processing data and wrote a program to do just that, which made everyone’s job much easier. So I stayed with the company and work there to this day. I analyse social media and have been the head of the department for more than a year now. The business’ owner began looking for new areas of development in 2013 and decided to invest in robotics. I was already in good standing and they asked me to work on a new project called Robots City.
How does one get to be in ‘good standing?’
The main thing is to dive headfirst into whatever it is you’re doing and not forget to exchange information with colleagues. These are general recommendations, but they work. It’s important not only to solve the tasks before you, but also to think about them and try to bring new ideas to the mechanical processes behind these tasks’ execution. When I came to the company, they still didn’t have any specialists in the new robotics division with a technical education. No one thought of automating routine processes, and a lot of things were still being carried out by hand. This is a classic example of when showing initiative and applying your knowledge yield solid results.
is how large the global market for robotics and artificial intelligence will be by 2020, according to a forecast by Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Some people say that when you first start working after graduating, practice is not at all related to theory. Was this your experience?
Theoretical ‘templates’ were put into practice fairly well. For example, when working with robots, you have to write a lot of development plans, as projects develop rapidly. Having a background in applied math helped me work with economic analysis as well, which was not my main area of study. You can find a real-world application for mathematical analysis, which I remember fondly, and in my work with social networks, I often got to use my skills in probability theory, mathematical statistics, and machine learning.
A lot of my classmates went to work for Yandex and are really happy in the IT sphere. In one way or another, they work closely with either programming or information system administration. This is an obvious route for those who major in this field. I also started out in that area, but quickly gained the skills I needed to become a manager.
Math majors are typically introverts. What makes you so social?
I used to be an introvert, but I’m happy to say that I was able to change that at work. It’s still sometimes difficult for me to talk to people, but the number of meetings and public talks I have under my belt forces me to be social and active. The main thing is practice, and then you’ll enjoy being this way and see the benefits of good communication.
Can you talk more about Robots City? Why, for example, does a Russian company have its office in the Netherlands?
This is a large-scale project that is actually entertainment-based. The team’s core mostly speaks Russian, especially the programmers and engineers, while the art director and marketing specialists are from the Netherlands. We chose this country for a number of reasons, including both its geographic location and convenient jurisdiction. Being headquartered here makes it easier to ‘crawl around.’ We have big plans as concerns European expansion and the European entertainment market.
We have a production laboratory in Moscow, where programmers and engineers prepare new models of robots and prototypes. We are planning to open up assembly locations in France and Seoul as well. We have close relations with local robotics producers in Seoul (a large proportion of our robots are from South Korea), and there are good financial support programmes there for production.
What exactly do you do at the company?
My official position is informatisation director, but lately my work has started looking more like that of a development director. We are planning to grow rapidly, and our experience with our finished robots has shown us which models are most prospective. We even have children’s toys and radio-controlled models. We studied how people react to them, how they perceive this or that type of robot. We’ve started using this data to create our own robots. Our first prototype is called Harlequin and is already part of our show for kids. We are currently launching a series of products, and we’re going to start hosting shows at new locations as well. I’m excited to become a part of this direction. Now I’m a ‘strategy programmer’ – I’m working on a development programme.
We tried putting on a Shakespeare performance once, with the robots reading different sonnets onstage. We thought of having them perform Hamlet, but we don’t yet have a good “actress” to play Ophelia
How did you analyse people’s attitude towards robots?
We created a series of tests, and we would often record the audience’s reaction so that we could watch it later and modify the performance so as to be able to predict how people would react to certain plot twists. We have a flexible performance programme, and to be honest, there have been some pretty unsuccessful performances as well. We’ve learned from such experiences though. Overall, this is more of a creative process than scientific.
We pay a lot of attention to how much time a certain robot spends on stage. We’ve had shows where only robots perform, as well as shows where real live actors have performed alongside these ‘robot actors.’ We experimented with the mix, and it seems we’ve found the right balance. Without any humans on stage, the majority of viewers have a cold view of the robots, partly because technology is still completely limited today. Robots move at a slower speed, and an actor can make these moments go more smoothly, so to speak. When real actors are on stage, the audience’s attention is always on the stage, and they’re not looking backstage to see how the robot is being controlled.
Your company not only has a robot theatre, but it also offers classes in robots as well, doesn’t it?
We have master classes at the Central Children’s Store, and we plan to partner with different organizations in the future to develop different projects and conferences and to organise media platforms that will be used for the robot theatre as well. Currently, we have robotics classes for children and adults who really want to learn how to build robots.
Last year we started creating a developmental robotics programme for elementary schools. In addition, we offer on-site workshops. We recently held a workshop at the Cosmonaut Training Centre for an international group of schoolchildren.
What’s currently happening on the robotics market?
When we started working with robots, the market wasn’t at all like it is now. There were a lot of exhibitions, and a ton of developments were made, but this was mostly research, and the market largely consisted of industrial-use robots. Of course, automation is used widely in the industrial sector, but robots haven’t yet reached a point where they are able to serve as people’s assistants in everyday life. In France, the company Aldebaran Robotics has made some very interesting developments – namely, a robot assistant for the elderly, but this robot still needs assistance itself.
We are helping shape the market, and it is part of our mission to make robotics a popular field. Unlike sci-fi writers and Hollywood, we are creating a positive view of robots. We use them to put on entertaining shows and events. We show them at exhibitions and participate in presentations alongside famous brands like Audi. Our partners in South Korea respect us for helping create a market. Above all, we produce content for robots and we think of things for them to do; that is, we find creative work for robots. We tried putting on a Shakespeare performance once, with the robots reading different sonnets onstage. We thought of having them perform Hamlet, but we don’t yet have a good ‘actress’ to play Ophelia.
They are currently developing a “big red button:” an emergency power-off system for machine-learning algorithms
There’s a certain moral and ethical aspect to developing robots, especially anthropomorphic ones. Are we at risk of being enslaved by artificial intelligence?
I think that if you take a responsible approach towards the design of robotic technology, including for military purposes (and there are a lot of developments in this area), then you can avoid problems in the future. The question is of how automated future devices should be and how interconnected artificial intelligence can be with robotics… They are currently developing a ‘big red button:’ an emergency power-off system for machine-learning algorithms, and today’s discussions concern a general protocol for emergency shutoffs. There are not any dangerous robots out there right now though. On the contrary, we are trying to show people that robots aren’t scary and that we need to befriend them, work with them, develop them, and in so doing develop ourselves. And today’s children have every opportunity to do just that.
Who else is in this sort of business on the Russian market?
If you view us as robot manufacturers, then we have a fairly large number of competitors. But since our main focus is on entertainment, the other producers are actually true friends and partners for us. There is some competition as far as children’s entertainment is concerned – for example the Robot Ball – but we’re friendly to one another. In 2014, we teamed up with them to put on a children’s play at Artplay for the closing ceremony of the interactive Robo-Exhibition.
How much does it cost to develop a robot?
As in any complex process, what’s most valuable is people. Creating a robot is a long process that requires the participation of many extremely expensive specialists. We are able to make production cheaper through our agreements with larger South Korean servomotor producers. We partially develop the electronics ourselves and make our own boards. We print certain parts on 3D printers in our laboratory as well.
What do you make robots out of?
The last robot we developed is called Columbina. When we were developing her, we used the shape of the masks from Italian commedia dell’arte. Harlequin and Columbina are part of an entire series of robots that were inspired by different images from classical Italian comedy. Columbina is still just a prototype though, a kinetic electronic sculpture. She moves, but doesn’t even talk yet. We’re slowly starting to put her on stage and give her simple roles to gain theatrical experience. Columbina has the standard electronic ‘filling,’ while her older brother is based on a fundamentally new idea.
What makes the majority of contemporary anthropomorphic robots unique? There is an entire range of elements that mimic the human body, and servomotors bring all these elements together. Oftentimes, one or several servomotors allow you to control a single element. But in Harlequin we used a different approach; one servomotor can control several elements at once thanks to special combinations. This is one of our innovations.
How do the robots ‘perform’ onstage?
Each robot has its own role. They talk and they move – either using their legs or with the help of wheels. They gesticulate, move their heads – some their tails – and they talk… Everything that real actors do in a performance. They also communicate with the audience through an interactive show, and children really like when we pull them on stage so they can also take part in the performance and meet the robots personally.
is the market value of the most expensive robot that is part of the Robots City show and openly available for sale
Which direction in the robotics and programming industry do you see as the most prospective for students and graduates of HSE MIEM?
A really interesting and relevant topic is virtual reality, and there is currently a good number of startups and companies in this field, including in Russia. For example, Ilya Flaks, also an HSE graduate, created the Fibrum mobile virtual reality headset, and he has put together an excellent team of developers at his company.
Would you even like to collaborate with MIEM and use your own experience as a way of bringing the classroom closer to reality and the actual market?
I’m currently getting my MBA and actively trying to brush up on economics. Studying in these kinds of programmes is quite different from your undergrad as far as structure is concerned. In particular, we are given a lot of examples of how different theoretical knowledge can be applied to real life situations. It’s a great way of remembering what you learn, that’s for sure. This mostly concerns economics, finance, and management, but I believe that this sort of approach can be used in a number of other fields as well. At some point, I’d like to try teaching mathematical analysis and show first-years how they can use it in their own lives.
Robots City gives MIEM students the opportunity to intern at the company, and in 2015 I came to my alma mater to talk about who we are and what we do. We are thinking about a possible joint laboratory where students would be able to gain some practical experience. HSE MIEM does a great job of preparing students, and we enjoy hiring MIEM students. After all, education is not just a competency; it’s a way of thinking that in this case is very much in line with what we do.